MASERU — A “medical miracle” is taking place in Lesotho.
Thousands of HIV positive mothers are giving birth to healthy HIV negative babies.
What was virtually unthinkable a few years ago is now happening giving hope to thousands of HIV positive mothers.
For a country that has the third highest HIV prevalence rate in the world this is nothing short of a miracle.
Lesotho’s Health Minister Mphu Ramatlapeng is an excited woman.
An elated Ramatlapeng last Wednesday told a gathering to mark World Aids Day in Roma that the Prevention of Mother-To-Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme had been a roaring success.
The programme, which was initiated in 2005 by the Ministry of Health, seeks to block the transmission of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) from the mother to unborn babies.
Since its inception at least 70 percent of HIV positive mothers have given birth to HIV negative babies, according to the health ministry.
The ministry says the programme is a living example of how a coherent anti-retro viral treatment (ART) programme can help HIV positive mothers give birth to healthy babies.
“We stand with pride in various national, sub-region and international meetings to give testimony of how much Lesotho has succeeded in the fight against HIV and Aids,” Ramatlapeng said.
She said the roll-out of the PMTCT programme was one of the success stories to come out of Lesotho in recent years.
“Our success in PMTCT is notable. More than 70 out of a 100 HIV positive mothers access PMTCT. We are getting close to 100 percent coverage in one or two years,” Ramatlapeng said.
“It is also worth noting that Lesotho was made proud when nurses from Butha-Buthe district pioneered the so-called mother-baby-package,” she said.
The mother-baby-package is a take-home box that contains all antiretroviral drugs and antibiotics that is given to HIV positive mothers.
It has “colour-coding and simple graphics to help mothers identify which of the individually packaged medicines to administer during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding,” according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
The roll-out of the PMTCT programme has risen from 5.9 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2009.
At least 90 percent of mothers have also been offered HIV testing and counselling at clinics dotted around the world.
The PMTCT programme is being offered at 166 health facilities including 19 hospitals and 117 health centres throughout Lesotho.
The results have been pretty encouraging, according to the health ministry.
The Lesotho Times went out to document some of these success stories.
And we met 31-year-old Nkeletseng Thulo from Qoaling in Maseru.
Thulo says she found out that she was HIV positive in 2008 after suffering serious bouts of illness.
She says she was virtually on death’s door then.
She says her health deteriorated rapidly and was soon put on the ART programme.
After a few months, Thulo says she regained her health.
In March 2009, she says she fell pregnant.
But knowing her HIV status she says she was nervous that she was going to infect her baby.
This was in spite of reassurances by health workers at the local clinic that it was still possible to give birth to an HIV negative baby.
“I was nervous when I learned that I was pregnant,” Thulo says.
“I had had a baby before and she died of pneumonia when she was only nine months. I knew she could have died because of the HIV infection that she got from me.
“I was scared that the same thing would happen to this one.
“But nurses assured me that the baby would be fine as long as I continued taking my medicine.
“I did that and I never had problems during the pregnancy,” Thulo says.
In December last year, Thulo gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
HIV tests done on the baby confirmed that she was negative, much to the joy and relief of her mother.
“I was happy when tests showed I had not infected her with the virus.
“Nurses said chances were high that I could have infected her if I did not take my medicine right. The medicine helped me protect my unborn baby,” Thulo says with a broad smile.
She says over the past 12 months she has religiously followed instructions from health care workers on how to feed her baby and protect her from infection.
For instance, she says, she has not breast-fed her baby but instead gives her prescribed milk which helps boost resistance to diseases.
All tests done over the past 12 months have shown the baby to be HIV negative, Thulo says.
“I am following the nurses’ orders to make sure that my baby remains negative.
“I am thankful to the support I got from health workers,” Thulo says.
“I wish I knew my status earlier and maybe my first child could still be alive.
“There is no need for babies to be dying when services for HIV positive mothers are given free of charge,” she says.
Lesotho has been one of the hardest hit countries in the world with at least a quarter of the country’s 1.8 million people said to be HIV positive, according to figures released by United Nations agencies.
Speaking at the World Aids Day commemorations King Letsie III said Lesotho had successfully run the PMTCT programme.
“One of the universal access targets for us in the fight against the spread of HIV and Aids was to increase the numbers of mothers who get the PMTCT services. We have seen great success in that,” King Letsie said.
Leopold Buhendwa, country director of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation (EGPAF), says the government should be proud of the progress that has been made so far.
“The minister should be proud of the results of the PMTCT.
“It is one of the best in the whole world. We want every mother to have access to PMTCT,” Buhendwa says.
“Pregnant mothers in Lesotho are given minimum packages. With the minimum package, a combination of three drugs, the chances for the lady to transmit the virus to the baby are very limited,” Buhendwa says.
“We are going towards the elimination of pediatric HIV and Aids. In less than a year PMTCT coverage has progressed from 36 percent to almost 80 percent. In this way we will have an HIV free generation,” he says.
EGPAF is funded by the United States Agency for International Development and works closely with the government of Lesotho in rolling out the PMTCT programme.